HOW much time would you devote to saving a tiny bit of inner city woodland? A few months? Two years? Try almost a quarter of a century. That’s how long it took Glasgow City Council to realise that some “grotty” derelict sports pitches north of the River Kelvin were not an “unsafe, unattractive environment” fit only for sale to a developer, but could become a treasured wild space, complete with 400 trees, rare orchids, vegetable beds, bats and community events aplenty.

Yes, it took 23 long years for residents and campaigners to turn the unloved Clouston Street pitches into the much-loved Children’s Wood and North Kelvin Meadow. Over those decades, the children who first enjoyed playing there have become the adults helping it reach new populations of Glasgow children.

The story began in the 1990s, when plans to build 100 homes were rejected by the council’s planning committee and then, on appeal, by the Scottish Reporter. Chuffed to see the plans defeated, locals started sewing grass seed and planting trees on the three-acre patch of land on the boundary between the wealthy West End and more impoverished Maryhill.

But that first defeated development proposal was just the first of many.

According to banking finance manager Douglas Peacock: “The council took away the goalposts from the football pitches – which is the standard way of selling places off. They left them to decay, litter and vandalism so there would be no point holding on to them.”

As the trees, bushes and flowers slowly took over, the doors and windows of an old brick building on the site caved in and the place became a drinking and drug den. Not great for the families living nearby in flats and tenements, without garden space.

So residents came up with a plan to build flats on the old tennis courts (now a small wood) and use the money to build a community hub with a running track, community garden, theatre space, meadow and five-a-side football pitches on the rest of the land. A trust managed to raise £1.2 million in potential funding, but the bid, backed by Glasgow City Council, failed due to noise legislation

The council then offered four alternative plans – all would turn the woods into housing. So locals formed the North Kelvin Meadow Campaign to lobby for the land to become a community green space and started clearing litter and planting flowers. They also installed fencing, a litter bin, bins for compost, and put a door and shutters on the old brick building which was then used as a store room.

But astonishingly, in 2009 a court order obtained by Labour-run Glasgow Council forced locals to stop work and approved plans by developers New City Vision to build 90 upmarket flats on the site.

A petition opposing the sale was delivered to council headquarters by Patrick Harvie, local MSP and Scottish Greens co-convenor, who recalls: “This derelict site was routinely used for fly-tipping – it was vile, like a lot of sites abandoned by local authorities.

“I would have expected the council to support this kind of community effort. Instead they took the organisers to court and did everything they could to sell the land elsewhere.”

Still, the cash-strapped council refused to budge, claiming a failure to sell the land would affect services for the whole city. But campaigners battled on, forming a charity called The Children’s Wood. In 2015 it moved from being 100% volunteer-led to a group with two part-time paid schools and community engagement officers, thanks to cash from the Robertson Trust.

A Glasgow University survey asked 3000 locals if they wanted development on North Kelvin Meadow and over 90% didn’t. It seemed like stalemate. So plans for a high-end housing development and the Children’s Wood’s counter-application to keep the land as a wild space both went before Glasgow’s planning committee on the same day in January 2016. Weirdly, both applications were accepted. So the decision was referred to an independent “reporter”, and then to the Scottish Government itself.

Finally in December 2016, it sided with the Children’s Wood to reject development plans and preserve open space and biodiversity at the heart of the city.

To say the campaign wasn’t easy is a massive understatement. Not only did it take time and energy, it was occasionally emotionally draining too.

The campaign was dominated by professional residents who enlisted the support of well-known Scots including actor Tam Dean Burns, Gruffalo author Julia Donaldson, comedian Frankie Boyle and Game of Thrones actress Kate Dickie, which let opponents dismiss the Children’s Wood as a middle-class West-Endy kind of affair, full of well-off Scots pulling up the drawbridge on much-needed new housing. Harry O’Donnell, chairman of developers New City Vision, said he was up against a “very vocal, articulate, well-organised lobby, which is typical of what you get if you want to do anything in the West End of Glasgow”.

Some activists took that comment as a back-handed compliment, but Emily Cutts, psychology researcher and mother of two children (both Children’s Wood regulars), still disputes accusations of elitism with gusto:

“There’s no nimbyism here. This is really an outdoor community centre addressing 21st-century needs. We have terrible food poverty at the moment so we’re growing vegetables and hosting community meals. We’re trying to combat loneliness amongst old people -- our most recent volunteer has just turned 90 years old and we’re connecting with old folks homes.

“We run a mental health gardening club, involve refugees in our projects and work with over 20 schools and nurseries from the West End to Ruchill where two employees are expanding outdoor learning.”

The Children’s Wood has linked up with Glasgow University’s psychology department to compare the attention span of children – research found concentration was best after spending time in the natural environment of the wood. Creativity, self-esteem and well-being also rose measurably after time spent on the land.

A big moment happened this summer when the National Theatre for Scotland agreed to pay for youth workers, not security, when they hosted a play about autism in the wood. This led to a youth programme tackling local gang culture which encourages young people who’ve experienced Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) to relax, cook and eat over an open fire. Social artist Kathy Friend brought honey bees and a small periscope for children to see what’s going on inside their hives.

Now Children’s Wood campaigners are asking the new Glasgow City Council to upgrade the disused shed and lease or sell them the land, using the community right to buy “abandoned or neglected land” in 2015 land reform legislation.

“What we need is a fundamental shift to understand that green space within cities is important,” says Emily. “The fact the Government rejected the New City Vision plans was great, and we hope it may change planning policy, so other communities don’t have to go to a public inquiry, or have independent reporters involved.”

Here’s hoping – a quarter of a century to preserve urban wild space is surely a quarter of a century too long.